Around noon on Saturday, Aug. 13, 1904, Charles Wagner took the helm of a 25-foot motor boat called the Recreation and set out from Reagan’s boathouse at the foot of 13th Street NW.
Wagner was a co-owner of the jaunty pleasure craft, and the fine day was to be spent up the river watching the 12th annual rowing regatta of the Potomac Boat Club. Wagner planned to fill his boat with spectators looking for a good view.
The Recreation was gasoline-powered — a “naphtha launch,” in the parlance of the day — and one of an increasing number of private boats crowding the Potomac in fair weather.
To professional boatmen, craft such as the Recreation were a nuisance. The Potomac was a working river — continually crisscrossed by steamboats, ferries, cargo ships and naval vessels — and pleasure boats were just in the way. It seemed that anyone was allowed to pilot a boat, no matter his experience level. Did they not understand how dangerous the river could be?
“People take the most appalling chances unthinkingly when they approach the water,” the Evening Star was later to editorialize. “They step carelessly from shore to boat and from boat to shore. They lean far out over the gunwale. They crowd to one side of a light craft. . . . They go canoeing when they cannot swim.”
Since the first of May, more than 20 people had drowned in the Potomac.
Wagner stopped at a boathouse at the foot of F Street in the Georgetown Channel to pick up more passengers. Most were Shriners who planned to hand out fliers advertising a future excursion.
There were about 10 people aboard the Recreation now. Wagner would claim he had carried as many as 16 before, along with their provisions. However, some who saw the boat thought it was already overcrowded.
The regatta had attracted rowing teams from up and down the East Coast and the river bank along the course — which stretched downriver from where the Key Bridge would be built 20 years later — was covered in a quilt of spectators.
After the first race, referees aboard the U.S. torpedo boat Talbot warned the Recreation that it was getting too close to the course. Wagner steered the boat toward the Georgetown shore. It was then that someone on the boat recognized a group of five women standing on a sea wall. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some ladies aboard?
Wagner eased the Recreation to the sea wall and turned off the engine. Four women stepped aboard. One, Kate Connors, declined. It looked unsafe.
The 13 passengers on the Recreation took their seats on benches around the sides, under a canvas canopy, and Wagner allowed the boat to float away from the sea wall.
What happened next happened quickly. A mill race emptied into the Potomac at the foot of 33rd Street, carrying runoff from water that powered the nearby Cissell flour mill. The Recreation drifted into the churning water of the mill race, splashing the women seated at the bow. Some shrieked and rose, moving to the other side of the boat, where it was dry.
This unsettled the Recreation. The boat began to tip. Its gunwales — only nine inches above the water — were caught under the cascading mill race. Wagner had been reluctant to start the engine too close to shore and now had no power to drive the boat to calmer water.
The Recreation turned turtle, casting some passengers into the water. As it sank, it trapped others within its sodden cage of canvas. The boat was so close to shore — barely two arm spans — but that was too far, the water too deep.
“The sight was a horrible one, and the scene long will be remembered by those who witnessed it,” wrote a reporter for the Star. “Hundreds of people, practically in reach of the drowning ones, were powerless to render the slightest assistance other than throwing to them life preservers and other things that would float.”
Henry MacFarland, one of the District commissioners, was aboard the referee boat as a guest of the Potomac Boat Club. When he learned of the disaster, he asked for the regatta to be canceled.
John Hadley Doyle, president of the club, refused. The oarsmen, he said, had incurred great expense in preparing for the meet.
Disgusted, MacFarland excused himself and was rowed over to the police boat Vigilant, where bodies were stacked on the deck. Ten people had drowned, including four women, the youngest just 16.
“It was nobody’s fault,” one of the survivors, Will Lederer, said. “No one is to blame. It was just God’s will that those should die who went down.”
Jurors at a later inquest agreed. After hearing an hour of testimony and conferring for five minutes, they ruled that the accident was “unavoidable and accidental.”
Charles Wagner, the captain, had survived. These passengers had not: Charles Henry Blumer, Andrew J. Boose, J. Herbert Coates, Lulu Dreyfus, Hazel Heiser, Helene Moore, J. George Smith, Will H. Smith, John Waldman Jr. and Bertha Selbach.
Thanks to the D.C. Library’s special collections librarian, Jerry McCoy, who discovered the story of the Recreation while reviewing recently-digitized photos from the Potomac Boat Club. See the photos, including the aftermath of the drownings, at digdc.dclibrary.org/cdm.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.